Jesus Questioned by Pharisees

29 Oct, 2023

By the Rev’d Andrew Coyle

Season: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Readings: Deuteronomy 34:1-12 | 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 | Matthew 22:34-46.

One of the things that struck me was that this seems to be a gospel reading in two disparate parts.

To begin with, Jesus is asked by one of the Pharisees which commandment in the law is the greatest, and he responds by saying that the greatest and first commandment is to love God with all your heart and soul, and mind. He then goes on to say, “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.

So, we start off talking about love, right?

But then Jesus turns round and asks the Pharisees this question, “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” To which the Pharisees respond, “He is the son of David.” And then Jesus says to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his Son?” And, apparently, this is a bit of a “Boom! Gotcha!” moment because, as our gospel passage tells us, No one is able to answer this question, “nor from that day did anyone
dare to ask him any more questions”.

And, we might say, “I’m not surprised!”

How did we get from talking about love to some weird question that seems to involve a rupture in the space-time continuum where we are trying to puzzle out how the expected Messiah can be a descendant of David, yet during David’s lifetime, David calls the Messiah his “Lord”? It is a bit hard to fathom the connection between these two things, and the shift from one to the other almost seems like a non sequitur.

But these two things are connected. And the thing that provides this passage’s internal coherence, and which is also the through-line that connects this passage to what precedes it, is the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees, two different Jewish sects of the time who are both trying to test and trap Jesus with their questions so that they can discredit him as a teacher and retain their own authority.

So, in the passages that have preceded this one, Jesus has been asked: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Ceasar?” which, of course, is a politically loaded question that could get Jesus in trouble with the Romans.

Then he is set a tangled riddle about seven brothers who each marry the same woman upon the death of the brother that preceded them and is asked whose wife the woman will eventually be at the resurrection of the dead, given that all seven brothers had married her. Here, the Sadducees are referring to the practice of levirate marriage, where a man marries the childless widow of his brother so that the children from that marriage can carry on the brother’s family name. But the Sadducees are not actually interested in any specific answer to this question. They just want to trip Jesus up and see him flounder.

Then we get to today’s reading, where Jesus is asked, “Which commandment is the greatest?”. And again, this question is designed to get Jesus into trouble because if you suggest that some laws are more important than others, then you open the door to the possibility that it is ok to disregard some laws or treat them as less significant than others, in which case you are suggesting that maybe the law of the Lord is not actually “perfect” and then you are really in trouble!

With all of these questions, Jesus answers in a way that clearly establishes himself as a teacher deeply grounded in the scriptures and traditions of his people. He shows that he can foot it with the best of them in any theological debate. Indeed, his answers show that he does considerably better than merely holding his own. His questioners are unable to trick or trap him in debate and he effectively “wins” all of these showdowns.

But there is more going on here than establishing Jesus’ credentials as a teacher and expert in the tradition.

In answering their questions and in proffering one of his own, Jesus is inviting the Pharisees and Sadducees and the rest of his listeners into a deeper and more authentic and life-giving understanding of the tradition that they all share. Jesus asks the Pharisees, “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” and they answer, “The son of David”. Jesus then goes on to point out that when David himself calls the Messiah his “Lord”, David is acknowledging that he himself owes loyalty to this Messiah and that this Messiah is someone even greater than he is himself. And then the question becomes, who could be greater than David, the greatest king Israel has ever known? And what would that greatness look like?

And the answer to both those questions is Jesus.

Jesus is the son of David, as the genealogy that begins the Gospel of Matthew points out. But Jesus is not a warrior king who conquers his enemies with violence, as David did before him. No, Jesus is not a militaristic saviour. Instead, Jesus shows us the kingdom of God by healing the sick and feeding the hungry, by freeing people from the things that possess them and oppress them, not through violence, but through “the unconditional, nonviolent love and grace of God”. (i)

Indeed, Jesus teaches his followers to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them, and to forgive rather than retaliate in kind. And, in this, the way of Jesus is deeply, deeply counter-cultural, confronting all of our all-too-human tendencies to lash out in vengeance, to hate and belittle, to persecute and scapegoat those who are different from
ourselves, those we don’t understand.

And, indeed, all of this is done to Jesus himself.

He is arrested, beaten and humiliated and then crucified and left to die amidst the taunts of his persecutors and abusers.

But, then something else happens. Something else is done to Jesus, and, through him, to us as well. God raises Jesus from the dead. God takes the persecuted and humiliated one, the crucified and executed one, and raises him to new life, demonstrating, not only, that God has power even over death, but that the life of Jesus, the way of Jesus, is the very power
of God in flesh and blood, that God’s power lies not in violence and revenge, but in forgiveness and love, and that it is these things that bring us to new life in a way that violence and persecution never can.

Violence, persecution and revenge only beget more of the same. Forgiveness and mercy, alongside justice and compassion, interrupt that cycle and offer us another way, the way of life. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead was God’s act of love toward Jesus and God’s act of love towards us all, showing us that love, and love alone, is the way to new and everlasting life.


(i) Gregory Anderson Love, “Matthew 22:41-46,” in Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2, Chapters 14-28 (eds.
Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson: Louisville, Kn.: Westminster John Knox, 2013), 210.

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